Monday, February 8, 2010

Display changes

Some of the foreigners killed at S21, including John Dewhirst (center); photo taken in 1997
If I can find the time this week, I'll get along to the public information section of DC-Cam and try to track down the names of the foreigners whose pictures are displayed at Tuol Sleng. My post here refers to my recent visit to S21 and the lack of basic details like names, dates, etc. I've visited Tuol Sleng many times since my first visit in 1994 and in looking back over some of my own photos I came across the picture above which I took in 1997. In those days the portraits, taken as the prisoners arrived at the detention center and before their interrogation and murder, were tacked onto the walls, not in display cases, and I noticed that amongst the photos on show was one of the only known British prisoner at S21, John Dewhirst. It was still on display in 2001. It's not on display today. Below is another copy of the photo, which appeared in The Daily Mail newspaper a few months ago. You can read more about John Dewhirst here and here.
This copy of John Dewhirst's photo appeared in The Daily Mail in September

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Monday, February 1, 2010

Who are they?

This doesn't look anything like the usual S21 portrait. I'm informed this is Aussie David Scott.
Everytime I go to Tuol Sleng I see their pictures. Yet I still have no idea who they are. Their faces have been staring back at me for years. Maybe, many moons ago the Tuol Sleng archivists pasted their names next to their mugshots, but today there's nothing to say who they are. I'm talking about the handful of pictures of foreigners interrogated and then murdered at S21. I'm sure that in my earlier visits to S21, when the photographs were attached directly to the walls, instead of inside the glass-fronted display cases as they are now, there were other photos displayed as well as confessions, and more. Afterall, it is a museum, so the exhibits have been changed over the course of time. However, I still think, at least as a mark of respect, if the names of individuals are known, they should be displayed next to the picture. The folks at DC Cam have established the names of foreigners killed at S-21 from the meticulous archives kept by the Khmer Rouge staffers, and these include Westerners as well as other nationalities and many Vietnamese and Thai nationals too. Below are the names of the Westerners. I'm sure someone will be able to pinpoint exactly who is who among the half a dozen photos posted at Tuol Sleng, so please let me know, so I can post the names here. The portraits were usually taken as the prisoners arrived at S21 and before their pointless interrogation took place, with death usually following soon after.
Ronald Keith Dean, Australian
David Lloyd Scott, Australian
John Dawson Dewhirst, British
Harard Bernard, French
Rovin Bernard, French
Andre Gaston Courtigne, French
Kerry George Hamill, New Zealand
James William Clark, USA
Michael Scott Deeds, USA
Christopher Edward Deland, USA
Lance MacNamara, USA
Does you recognise this portrait?
None of those being photographed had any idea about their fate
One of the six Western face portraits on display at S21
Another prisoner portrait taken from the display photographs in Building B
The photos of half a dozen Westerners can be found on the walls of Tuol Sleng. Who are they?

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VIP rooms

An ankle leg-iron is an eerie remnant of much darker days
A visit to Tuol Sleng (aka S21) is always a sober occasion. There's not much time for quiet reflection with the sheer number of tourists and locals coming through the main gates nowadays though the benches in the courtyard can provide some respite. This was where I met Chum Mey, one of only two survivors of S21, on Saturday. The solitary cells on the ground floor of Building A, housing what the tour guides term VIP inmates, provide the backdrop for these pictures.
A leg-iron was used to shackle the prisoners to their bed or during interrogation
A leg-iron, pillow and plate occupy the bedstead in one of the solo prisoner rooms
A rusting ammunition box, used as a latrine, remains
The starkness of the rooms and the symbols of confinement are powerful images
A wooden-slatted bedstead, chains and latrine
Another bedstead with symbols of imprisonment, initiated when the detention center was opened as a museum in 1980
Through the broken glass lies the one of the VIP rooms at S21


Saturday, January 30, 2010

Sweaty palms

In the courtyard of Tuol Sleng with Chum Mey
I'm reading through the final manuscript of To Cambodia With Love and my palms are sweating. Kim, the series editor, has just sent it to me and told me I have a day to read it through as the final deadline has arrived like a runaway train and my desire for perfection is just about to pass its sell-by date. I've procrastinated long enough, now it's time to face the music and produce what I promised to ThingsAsian, the publishers, what seems like a lifetime ago. Kim has done a fabulous job in picking up the pieces I sent her and I'm very proud of everyone's combined efforts. Nothing is certain in publishing though it looks like TCWL might be out in a few months - but keep it under your hat for the moment.

This morning I took my friend Ting, she's visiting Cambodia for the first time from her home in Taiwan, to Tuol Sleng. She's already seen the city's other major tourist sights on her own but wanted me to explain about Tuol Sleng, the Khmer Rouge, et al. During our visit we met with Chum Mey, one of the three remaining survivors of Tuol Sleng, and who has been in the international press a lot in recent months due to the trial of Comrade Duch, the former director of the detention center where Chum Mey was incarcerated in the final months of the Khmer Rouge control over Phnon Penh. He talked to a small group of British visitors, who were overawed to meet him, completely unexpectedly, with translations provided by their guide, explaining briefly about his detention and torture and thanked them for coming to Cambodia. By the look on their faces, I think he made their Tuol Sleng visit one they'll never forget.
This afternoon I inflicted two games of Cambodian football onto Ting. I don't think she will ever forgive me. She doesn't even like football. They were the opening pair of Hun Sen Cup last 16 games and whilst Phnom Penh Crown just scraped a 1-nil win over Phuchung Neak, Wat Phnom (formerly Spark) went goal-crazy with a 10-1 win over Mekong University. I get the feeling Ting can't wait to get out of town and up to Siem Reap. Little does she know there's two more games for her to endure tomorrow afternoon, before she gets the bus! More on the footy results later.

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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Looking back

Pont de Vernéville in Phnom Penh 1904
Le Pont Fabre in Phnom Penh 1904
History fascinates me. It always has and I hope it always will. So I was disappointed when I had to miss last Sunday's Khmer Ephemera at Meta House. Joel Montague was presenting examples from his French colonial paper collection that included old postcards and posters of Cambodia. If you want your own taste of old Cambodia seen through early photographic postcards, then look no further than here which has scanned copies of some wonderful images. I've included a couple here, both of them bridges in Phnom Penh that are sadly no longer with us, but what amazing structures they were.
To give you a bit more info about one of the bridges, Pont de Vernéville, here's an extract from a Ministry of Culture website:
The development of modern Phnom Penh began during the 1890s under the direction of architect-town planner Daniel Fabré (1850-1904). During this period the colonial administration made various attempts to resolve the recurrent problem of flooding by filling in several small natural lakes and digging a series of interlinked canals to provide better drainage. The most important of these was the canal completed in 1894, which effectively encircled the quartier Européen. This canal entered from the Tonle Sap, ran east to west along quai Vernéville (now Street 106) and south to north adjacent to boulevard Monsignor Miche (now Monivong Boulevard), before swinging eastwards again to exit into the Tonle Sap at the end of boulevard Charles Thomson (now France Street 47) at the site of a former bridge, the Pont de Vernéville.
Canal de Vernéville 1904 that ran through Phnom Penh
Talking of old photos, I remembered that my mug shot appeared in the Phnom Penh Post at the back end of last year whilst attending a movie preview at Meta House. Here it is but I don't exactly look like a happy bunny do I, and neither does my date for the night, Ameas. A much more happier looking photo was taken at Tuol Sleng of all places a few weeks earlier. It was the first time that Ameas and her sister had been to Tuol Sleng and like many Khmers before her, she had no idea it even existed, let alone what took place there.
A glum-looking Ameas and myself at Meta House (from the PPP)
A much happier pose at Tuol Sleng; same people as above!

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Fake regulations

The S-21 interrogation regulations in 1994, in Khmer and English
An interesting but not surprising admission from Comrade Duch at the ongoing Khmer Rouge Tribunal yesterday was that the rules of interrogation that have been posted at Tuol Sleng, or S-21 to give it its official name, and read by thousands of visitors over the years, are, in his words, a fabrication. In testimony about his role at S-21, Duch said that the 10 security regulations, which were originally on the wall of Block A when I first visited Tuol Sleng in 1994 and are now on a billboard in front of the building, were "fabricated by the Vietnamese when they came in." It was the Vietnamese liberators who helped set up the genocide museum about a year after the Khmer Rouge were expelled from the capital. Duch also testified that his daily interrogation reports to Son Sen and Nuon Chea were also circulated around the Khmer Rouge's Standing Committee, effectively implicating the other defendants who are now on trial. On dissenting voice against Duch and the fabricated rules is former S-21 guard Him Huy, who said; "During the KR regime, all guards were obliged to know all disciplines, and the 10 disciplines at S-21 were written by Duch." The rules included; 'While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all,' and 'If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.'
The S-21 regulations as they are today at Tuol Sleng, in Khmer, French and English

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Friday, April 24, 2009

London calling

One of the victims of the Khmer Rouge at S-21
London will soon host an exhibition of photographs and a series of events that will focus on S-21, aka Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, in Phnom Penh. A screening of his famous documentary Year Zero and a Q&A with journalist John Pilger has been lined-up and in June, a new play under the title S-27 will be performed for the first time. The photographic exhibition, called Facing Death: Portraits of Cambodia's Killing Fields, will be held at the Photofusion Gallery in Electric Lane, London SW9 from 1 May until 26 June and will be composed of one hundred ID portraits loaned from The Photo Archive Group, a Los Angeles based non-profit organisation founded by photojournalists Chris Riley and Doug Niven who discovered, cleaned, catalogued and saved the negatives found at S-21. These extraordinary images, of people arriving at S-21 and who would never be allowed to leave, will be shown in the UK for the first time. The John Pilger screening and Q&A will take place at the same venue on Saturday 30 May at 3pm with a £10 entrance fee. The brand new play, inspired by the work of the Khmer Rouge photographer Nhem En, who was the man responsible for most of the S-21 face images, S-27 was the inaugural winner of Amnesty International’s Protect The Human Playwriting Competition. The play is by Sarah Grochala and is about a woman who takes photographs of people before they’re executed and how her encounters with the victims of the regime under which she lives change her life. It begins on 9 June and will run until 4 July at the Finborough Theatre, SW10. If you are in the UK, make sure you get along and visit the exhibition, join JP or get your ticket to watch the play.

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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

British victim at S-21

The case of 26-year-old British teacher John Dewhirst was in the news again today with a report in The Times newspaper and another by the BBC. Dewhirst (pictured) was in the wrong place at the wrong time when he was captured by a Khmer Rouge naval patrol, tortured at Tuol Sleng and executed just weeks before the Khmer Rouge regime was toppled by the invading Vietnamese army in 1979. He was the only known Briton to have been jailed in S-21 and with the trial of the prison's chief Duch underway in Phnom Penh, the stories appeared today. Also read other articles on John Dewhirst here. Dewhirst's fellow crew member Kerry Hamill also perished and filmmaker Annie Goldson is to make a documentary, Brother Number One, for New Zealand television charting the search for the truth about what happened to Hamill by his younger brother, champion rower and Olympian Rob Hamill.

Khmer Rouge Trial: the British victim John Dewhirst - by Anne Barrowclough, The Times

s hundreds of Cambodians crowded into a courtroom yesterday to see the chief torturer of the Khmer Rouge finally brought to trial, a country lawyer in Britain quietly got on with her work. Only those closest to her know how, 30 years ago, Comrade Duch destroyed Hilary Holland’s family. In 1978 Ms Holland’s brother, John Dewhirst, 26, was captured by the Khmer Rouge and tortured and killed at Tuol Sleng. He was the only Briton among 17,000 Cambodians to die at the regime’s infamous prison. Three decades on, as Cambodia watches the first trials of the Khmer Rouge’s murderous leaders, his fate continues to haunt his sister. “The horrific circumstances and the manner of how John was killed still makes it so difficult to cope with,” Ms Holland told The Times from her home in Cumbria.

The young Newcastle teacher had been sailing through the Gulf of Thailand with two friends in July 1978 when their vessel was intercepted by a Khmer Rouge patrol boat. The skipper, Stuart Glass, a Canadian, was killed instantly. Mr Dewhirst and the other crew member, Kerry Hamil, a New Zealander, were sent to Tuol Sleng, a school turned into a torture centre presided over by the brutal Kang Kek Ieu – better known as Duch. There, like thousands of others, they were tortured until they “confessed” to being CIA agents. Then they were taken to Cheong Ek, a pretty orchard on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, and bludgeoned to death with an iron bar.

Back in Britain, Ms Holland was concerned at her younger brother’s unusual silence but it was not until she switched on the news one evening that she learnt he had become a victim of a regime she had hardly heard of. Soon after, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office told her that he had been captured and imprisoned by the Khmer Rouge and was almost certainly dead. The pain of that moment has never left her. “It was indescribable,” she said. “I don’t think I have got the words to explain how I felt. I used to think that if you could die from emotions like this, I would have died. I have experienced death – the death of my husband when I had two young children – but this is completely different.”

Yesterday Duch identified himself quietly before the charges against him were read out to a UNbacked war crimes tribunal: crimes against humanity, war crimes, premeditated murder and torture. He is the first of five former leaders of the Khmer Rouge to be brought to trial. The others were members of Pol Pot’s inner circle: Nuom Chea, or “Brother Number Two”, who was in charge of security; Ieng Sary, the former foreign minister, and his wife Ieng Thirith; and Khieu Samphan, the former head of state. Nearly two million Cambodians died between 1975 and 1979 as Pol Pot pursued his vision of an agrarian Utopia. Tuol Sleng, also known as S21, was the most notorious jail: of 17,000 people sent there, only 15 survived. According to the thick file of charges read to the court: “Every prisoner who arrived at S-21 was destined for execution. The policy at S-21 was that no prisoner could be released. Prisoners brought to S-21 by mistake were executed in order to ensure secrecy and security.”
On the orders of Duch, a former maths teacher, victims were plunged headfirst into tanks of water, often drowning; they were given electric shocks to their genitals and eardrums. Some were hooked up to intravenous pumps and literally bled dry.

It was a cruel fate that delivered Mr Dewhirst into Duch’s hands. A care-free, adventurous young man, he had taken a break from his teaching job in Japan to go sailing with Mr Glass and Mr Hamil on their motorised junk Foxy Lady. It drifted into Cambodian waters and, to the paranoid Khmer Rouge, their presence had no innocent explanation. Even after she heard of his incarceration in S-21, his sister hoped that his friendly nature would help him to survive. “I thought if anyone could develop a personal relationship with his jailers it would be him,” she said. “I thought he would charm his way out of there.”

In fact, nothing could have saved him – although the meticulous Duch, who catalogued details of all his prisoners, described him as a polite young man. Before he died, Mr Dewhirst was forced to write a detailed confession saying that he had been trained as a CIA spy. The confession, in Cambodian and English, entitled “Details of my course at the Annexe CIA college in Loughborough, England”, claims that he was recruited into the CIA by his father and from 1972-76 was taught agency techniques, including weapons-handling, at his teacher training college in Leicestershire. A mixture of the dull and the ludicrous, it claims that Loughborough was one of six CIA colleges in Britain. Others, John wrote, were in Cardiff, Aberdeen, Portsmouth, Bristol and Doncaster. His college, he said, was run by “retired Colonel Peter Johnson” while the bursar was a CIA major. Among many bizarre “admissions” was a claim that his father was a CIA agent whose cover was “headmaster of Benton Road Secondary School”. The confession is signed and dated 5/7/1978. Mr Dewhirst’s thumbprint lies alongside his signature. As with thousands of inmates at S-21, it was probably dictated to him by his interrogators on Duch’s orders.

Duch’s trial is of great significance to Cambodia, with its former leaders going unpunished for 30 years. It is expected to be a catharsis for the victims, who still do not understand why their families were taken from them. Ms Holland also wants answers. She wants the Khmer Rouge leaders to admit their guilt and explain why they destroyed so many lives. “There must be a public accountability,” she said. “I would like it to be seen that they understand what they did.” It is too painful for Ms Holland to attend Duch’s trial but she is relieved that, after all this time, the leaders will finally be brought to justice. “It’s of such historical importance,” she said. “No one is going to undo the horrors but bringing these people to account is important. I don’t care what happens to them but I would like them to tell the truth, to explain their motivation."

Duch, 66, who was arrested in 1999 after being tracked down by a journalist, is alone among the defendants in expressing remorse and has agreed to cooperate with the tribunal. At a procedural hearing last month, he made it clear through his lawyer that he would use his trial to apologise to his victims, although he does not expect “immediate” forgiveness. His French lawyer, Francois Roux, said yesterday: “After ten years of prison, at last the day is coming where he can in public respond to the questions.” But Duch can expect no forgiveness from Ms Holland. “People like Duch, who ordered the atrocities, were the worst,” she said.

How the Khmer Rouge claimed a British victim - by Jonathan Greenwood (BBC)

Hilary Holland is unimpressed with the news that the Khmer Rouge leader who ordered her brother's execution 30 years ago has admitted responsibility for his crimes. Kaing Guek Eav - also known as Comrade Duch - expressed "regretfulness and heartfelt sorrow" for his actions at a long-awaited UN-backed tribunal in Cambodia. "I'm not a vindictive person" she says, "but personally it won't make me feel any different. What happened to my brother can't be undone. There has to be accountability, there has to be truth. But sorry is not enough. There's nothing he could say that would make me feel better about what happened."

Duch stands accused of torture, crimes against humanity and premeditated murder on a massive scale. It is alleged that he oversaw the deaths of more than 10,000 people. The Khmer Rouge killed up to two million people in less than four years. Ms Holland's brother, John Dewhirst, was among the victims. In 1978, the 26-year-old teacher was captured, tortured and killed at the notorious Tuol Sleng prison. He was the only Briton among 17,000 Cambodians to die there. Taking a holiday from his job as a teacher, he had been sailing through the Gulf of Thailand with two friends, when their boat strayed into Cambodian waters. When it was intercepted by a Khmer Rouge patrol boat, one of the party, Canadian Stuart Glass was killed immediately.

John and the other crew member, New Zealander Kerry Hamil were taken to the now infamous Tuol Sleng prison, also known as S-21. There they were tortured until they confessed to being CIA agents, before being executed. John's sister Ms Holland, now a solicitor based in Cumbria, learned of his fate by listening to the news. Eventually the Foreign and Commonwealth office confirmed he had been captured by the Khmer Rouge, and that he was probably dead. More than 30 years on, she is still traumatised by what happened. Fighting back the tears she says: "I'm a strong person. I've had knocks over the years - I experienced the death of my husband at a young age. I imagine the effect it's had on me is similar to all those people in Cambodia - it's permanent. Where there's an ordinary death - you miss the person who was in your life, and it hurts but the pain reduces over the years. Time's a great healer. But this doesn't get any less." She recognises the impact that the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge must have had on the Cambodian national psyche: "There must be a whole country of traumatised people - because of how they were killed and tortured."

The horrors of what happened inside S-21 are almost unimaginable. Prisoners were tortured until they wrote detailed confessions - explaining how they'd been disloyal to the regime. Then they were taken to the "killing fields" at Choeung Ek, a few kilometres outside Phnom Penh. There they were executed, often bludgeoned to death with iron bars on the orders of Duch. Victims were frequently made to dig their own graves. Duch, who was meticulous in recording those who passed through S-21 described John as a polite young man - but that didn't save him.

His confession - signed and dated the 5th of July 1978 - is entitled "Details of my course at the Annexe CIA college in Loughborough England." Among the bizarre claims is that Loughborough was one of six CIA colleges in the UK. Hilary Holland says she had no idea how John was killed until recently. She decided not to attend the trial in person. "It would be too hard, and it wouldn't achieve anything," she says. But she recognises its importance: "If this trial can in any way help any of those people - then it should happen. It's of such historical importance and it's a matter of public record. The more information that can be made available, then the better historically speaking and it might stop these things happening again."

Another story ran a couple of days ago in the New Zealand press about the fate of Kerry Hamill.
NZ family seek justice at UN trial - by The Press (New Zealand)

It is 31 years since Kiwi Kerry Hamill was tortured and killed in a Cambodian school-turned-prison. On Monday, his brother, rowing great Rob Hamill, expects to see the first flickers of accountability as one of the largest criminal hearings of modern times opens. Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, ran the most notorious torture centre during the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror. It was where Hamill was killed, along with two friends and thousands of Cambodians. Eav faces charges of crimes against humanity before the United Nations-backed Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, which has New Zealand judge and former governor-general Dame Silvia Cartwright among its five members. "It's more accountability and to see that some sort of justice has been done. It's been over 30 years now and it's about time," Rob Hamill said.

Kerry Hamill, then 27, and friends were sailing from Singapore to Bangkok when their yacht strayed into Cambodian waters. Along with his mates, Canadian Stuart Glass and Briton John Dewhirst, Hamill was arrested, detained, tortured and killed at Security Prison 21 (S21), formerly the Tuol Svay Prey High School. As many as 1.7 million Cambodians perished in the Khmer Rouge reign of terror, 14,000 of them "class enemies" of the Communist regime executed at the S21 torture centre and prison, along with Hamill. After his 1978 capture, Hamill was forced to write a 4000-word "confession" that claimed his father was a colonel in the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) who had recruited him into the agency. Under torture, he described in detail CIA plans to subvert the Khmer Rouge regime. Then he and Dewhirst were killed. Glass had been shot earlier. Women, children and babies were also killed. Few inmates at the former school survived.

From August 1975, four months after the Khmer Rouge won the civil war, classrooms were converted into tiny prison and torture chambers, and windows were covered with iron bars and barbed wire. Rob Hamill said Eav, 66, a former teacher, had caused "terrible pain". He spoke of "the complete loss and grief that was felt and the impact it had on our family. I often think about how things could have been better. Not that things are terrible, but you know having Kerry in our lives would have [been better]."

He provided the court with a statement, but the expense and timing made it impossible to attend the historic trial. "I am feeling a compelling sort of need to be out there now," Hamill said. Christchurch Cambodian Association president Rasy Sao said Cambodians viewed the trials with some scepticism because of Prime Minister Hun Sen's past involvement with the Khmer Rouge. "At this moment, the government in Cambodia does some things not very right. There is quite a lot of corruption," Sao said. "If they do it [a trial] for someone, they should do it for themselves." Sao said he visited his home country twice a year and had to stay quiet while he was there. "If I say something wrong, maybe they will kill me straight away."

Cartwright said whatever political problems there might be in Cambodia, there was no problem with the judiciary. "I have no hint of any corruption of any description amongst my Cambodian judge colleagues," she said. Cartwright has been living in Phnom Penh and preparing for the trials since last July. Once the trials begin, Cartwright will be allocated areas to focus on. "I might be asked to focus on how S21 or [the school] was actually established, or I might be asked to focus on methods of torture or focus on how many people died or something like that, and it will be my job to be totally on top of the evidence. The evidence goes to hundreds of thousands of pages," she said.

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Monday, March 30, 2009

Vann Nath in Forbes

I missed this story about Vann Nath, the painter who survived the gruesome Tuol Sleng prison because he used his skills as an artist to outlast the Khmer Rouge regime, as I was away last week - coincidentally spending some time in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng. The article appears on the magazine website here and has come in for some criticism for a few inaccuracies. Judge for yourself.

The Goya of the Cambodian Genocide -
by Lawrence Osborne

How painter Vann Nath reveals the truth of what happened.

It doesn't take very long living in Phnom Pehn before a 10-year-old boy with dog-dark eyes slips a plastic-wrapped book into your hand as you are sitting at an outdoor cafe and says, "Genocide, sir, genocide book. Five dollar." The child hustlers here are so charming in that Oliver Twist way that you always give in and buy a genocide book and, even more depressingly, you open it. There are certainly many of them being touted by the kids working the Sisowath Quay alongside the Tongle Sap river. There are the works of the American scholar Ben Kiernan, or the harrowing war memoirs of Jon Swain and François Bizot, or various other memoirs with titles like Pol Pot Killed My Sister or A Year in Hell. Genocide is big business in Cambodia; even the set price destination menus inside the tuk tuks feature the "Killing Fields" - the former Khmer Rouge extermination camp at Cheong Ek--as their No. 1 Phnom Penh attraction, followed closely by Tuol Sleng, the secret prison known as S-21.

For the last few years, the U.N. has been sponsoring a weary, bickering, increasingly fruitless war crimes tribunal to condemn the last five senior members of the Pol Pot regime. In the summer of 2008, I watched in disbelief as Ieng Sary, the former foreign minister, was judged "unfit" to stand trial for mental health reasons. This year, it has been the turn of the sinister Duch, the commandant of Tuol Sleng. The others on trial are Khieu Samphan, the former nominal head of state; Noun Chea, Pol Pot's deputy, and Ieng Thirith. But this month in Phnom Pehn I noticed that the papers were also filled with rumors that the UN was threatening to pull out of a trial seen as being manipulated by the nervous Prime Minister Hun Sen. The slippery Hun Sen is an ex-Khmer Rouge himself, after all, and he has many skeletons in his capacious cupboards.

On the streets, meanwhile, the most ubiquitous genocide book by far is a slender volume with the modest title, A Cambodian Prison Portrait: A Year in the Khmer Rouge's S-21. Unwrap the plastic and you enter the most harrowing memoir of them all, a first-person account of the Khmer Rouge years by a naive country painter named Vann Nath: one of only seven men to survive Tuol Sleng. Sixteen thousand others were not so lucky. Some have called Vann Nath the Goya of the genocide, which was contrived by the Maoist regime of Democratic Kampuchea between 1975 and 1979. It was a period in which the strange, secretive dictator Pol Pot - whose real name was Saloth Sar - tried to create what the British historian Philip Short has called "the first modern slave state." Upon emerging victorious from a long guerrilla war against the U.S.-backed government of Lon Nol, Pol Pot's militant Khmer Rouge emptied the cities and drove millions of people into the countryside to work in collective farms. Twenty thousand died on the road in the first few days of the regime and during the next three years and 10 months, 200,000 were executed as "traitors." In total, between 1.5 million and 2 million died. When the Vietnamese army finally drove Pol Pot back into the jungles of western Cambodia, the country was strewn with the remains of the so-called killing fields.

But the Khmer Rouge did not cease to terrorize Cambodia. Supported by China, Thailand and the U.S., Pol Pot himself fought on in the wild Cardamom Mountains near the town of Pailin, on the border with Thailand. Atrocities continued. In 1994, Khmer Rouge units attacked a train on the Phnom Pehn-Kampot line and executed dozens of people, including three westerners. In 1997, the former Khmer Rouge propaganda minister Son Sen was murdered with his wife and children on Pol Pot's direct orders--a lurid crime that led to the dictator's downfall inside his own movement. Only with Pol Pot's death in 1998 did the movement begin to peter out, and the almost supernatural fear he inspired begin to recede.

Vann Nath's electrifying, primitivist images inspired by Bollywood movie posters and drawn directly from memory, are the only testimony to what happened inside S-21, a former French school in the heart of the city where thousands were tortured and murdered under the eye of the psychopathic Duch. It's a paradox of torture (and genocide, for that matter) that it can rarely if ever actually be photographed as it happens. But it can be painted. Like Duch, Vann Nath is quite a well-known character in Phnom Pehn. He owns a large Khmer restaurant on Czechoslovakia Street with a dark dining room walled with bamboo and filled with the kind of miniature red-lit Chinese shrines that look like shrunken porn stores. He wasn't difficult to find in the end. A slightly stooped, white-haired man with a kindly, beaten-up face, he is to be found in his restaurant almost every day, self-effacingly holding court with a trickle of visitors and playing with his grandchildren.

You see at once the wounded, hunted eyes and the slight sense of bemusement--it's a face older than its years and yet somehow also younger. When you are one of only seven people who emerge alive from a killing machine that exterminated thousands, you inevitably wonder why it was you and not someone else. As Vann Nah explains in his book, he was only spared because he was a reasonably competent artist. Duch plucked him from the execution lists because he thought he might be able to produce a few decent propaganda portraits of Brother Number One, as Pol Pot was known. (The execution orders still survive, with Duch's signature at the bottom of a long list of Vann Nath's fellow prisoners and a red line under Vann Nath's name with a comment to one side suggesting that he be spared.)

We sat in the gloom of the dining room in the middle of the afternoon, under plastic vine leaves on trellises, while he ordered me a Khmer feast: mo-cou kroeung, a fiery sour soup, and spiced omelettes called pong teair. Vann Nath has his painting studio upstairs above the restaurant and, for all his odd celebrity, it's a quiet life now, by his own admission--daily painting, family and the business. Like most Khmers, he is reticent, refined, never raising his voice or making emphatic gestures. But from time to time he covers his face with a hand in a gesture of apparent nervousness. He said that he had never dreamed his life would turn out this way, that his work would become the most instantly recognizable icon of a surreal state crime. "I thought I would be painting landscapes. Indeed, I have now gone back to painting landscapes." On Jan. 7, 1978, the 33-year-old painter was arrested. As usual with the Khmer Rouge, there was no explanation, no credible charge; the whole process was somewhat mysterious.

Equally inexplicably, Vann Nah was tortured by electrocution. The questions were always the same. Was he a member of the CIA? The Vietnamese sympathizers? The KGB? He had never heard of any of them. He was then bundled into a convoy bound for Phnom Pehn, still with no idea what he had been arrested for. Instantly, he was catapulted into a Dostoyevskian world of secrecy, paranoia and terror. None of his fellow prisoners knew what they had been arrested for either. It hardly mattered. Decades later, many Khmer Rouge cadres freely admitted that most of the people they had murdered were innocent. Killing innocents was as important as killing the guilty. "Better to kill a thousand innocent people than let a single guilty one go," was one of the Khmer Rouge's cryptically absurd slogans. In the converted classrooms of S-21, prisoners were shackled together with iron bars. They were not permitted to talk, urinate, stand or even turn their bodies without asking permission from the ferocious teenage guards. If they ate cockroaches to supplement the appalling food, they were beaten savagely - sometimes to death. The guards knew, even if the prisoners didn't, that everyone there was doomed to die anyway.

Vann Nath's gripping paintings show many of these scenes: prisoners being flogged, water-boarded, their nails ripped out, their throats cut (it was rumored that blood was collected in this way and peddled to Phnom Pehn hospitals). In a 2003 documentary made by Rithy Panh, Vann Nath re-visited Tuol Sleng with some of the former guards, who were outwardly unrepentant. With demented enthusiasm, they re-enacted their cruelties - revolutionary children tormenting their elders. They stormed up and down the corridors for the cameras, screaming at the ghosts of long-dead prisoners. Vann Nath and Chum Mey, another survivor, watched them in stupefaction. "Pol Pot was always obsessed with the Cambodians disappearing as a race," Van Nath said in the restaurant. "There was this racial hysteria about the Vietnamese, about the Khmers being conquered and assimilated. But during that whole time I kept wondering if the Khmers were simply destroying themselves. I wondered, how can we do this to ourselves? Is it self-hatred? Are we trying to wipe ourselves from the face of the earth?"

We went upstairs to the open-air studio on the first floor - a terrace overlooking the tin rooftops. It was the rainy season and the skies lit up with monstrous flashes of lightning. The studio paintings were a mix: half political paintings, half idyllic, sunset-drenched landscapes filled with Ankgorian ruins, water buffalo and the timeless villages that seem to reside in the Khmer unconscious as a kitsch memory of a lost Eden. They are the kinds of images you see everywhere at Angkor Wat, sold by scores of artists by the roadside. But the Tuol Sleng images are something else. Also derived from memory, they have the gritty, driving force of a personal pathology. Among them stood one of the hallucinatory pictures of Pol Pot, clearly inspired by the iconography of Mao. Looking at it, I was reminded of a curious observation by the French writer Pierre Loti upon visiting the ruin of Banon at Angkor Wat, which is famous for its giant smiling faces of King Jayavarman VII. Loti found the temple terrifying because of those faces, which showed the smile of totalitarian power and cruelty, of calm implacability. When I told Vann Nath this he seemed to recognize the parallel. "Yes, I can see that. I made Pol Pot smile like that because that's what they wanted."

Like a miniature gulag, Tuol Sleng had its hierarchies, its survival strategies (futile in the end, of course) and its resident sadists. Over it all presided the cool, methodical, pedantic Duch, who took pride in the exactness of his bookkeeping. Every day he came into the studio, where a handful of artists were being kept alive for official purposes, and examined their progress. The executioners always came with him. I wondered how Vann Nah felt about Duch now. "Duch was always polite to me. He would come in and look at my portraits and admit that I was making a good effort. We both knew that if I didn't make that effort I would be taken out and shot with the others, but he could pretend to joke about it. He asked me to make Pol Pot look young and fresh. I ended up making him look like a teenage girl, with the pink cheeks. Duch was delighted. I was allowed to live."

Duch was himself a curious character. A former math teacher who had come under the sway of Maoism in the '60s, he was the same age as Vann Nath and had fought in the jungle army of Pol Pot for years. As it happens, he also interrogated the French scholar Francois Bizot in 1971 after Bizot was captured by the Khmer Rouge near Angkor Wat. The portrait of Duch in Bizot's book, The Gate, was unforgettable enough. Mildly sadistic and a fanatical Communist, Duch had spared Bizot because the latter could play chess and speak Khmer. This odd Frenchman was intriguing and Duch was too curious about him to have him shot. To Bizot, there was a cat and mouse quality to their relationship, and perhaps the same had been true for Vann Nath. Vann Nath's images are more than paintings, and they cannot be judged merely aesthetically. They are folk stories lit by a sudden flash of pornographic horror. His images of water-boarding, a technique used daily at Tuol Sleng, have recently found their way all over the Internet in the light of recent controversies, though few know the story behind them. For many in the West, it was their first actual image of the technique. It shows how the archaic tool of painting has once again become strangely powerful and relevant in the age of digital media.

The faded black and white photographs from 1975, "Year Zero" of the regime, often look like something from the distant past, like views of the Middle Ages. Our sense of distance from them is already extraordinary. But Vann Nath's brilliantly colored nightmares somehow remind us that most of us were alive at the time, living happy lives elsewhere. Pol Pot is not a figure from the distant past and memories are not digital. Last summer, I went every day to the trial out by the air force base. The defendants are ancient, but the machinery of U.N. justice has tried its best to be merciless toward the leaders of the genocide. (Nevermind about the thousands of subordinates who did the actual killing. They cannot be dredged up, for some mysterious reason, and they have slipped back into the population unnoticed: a thousand killers walking the streets with their shopping bags.) As the technicalities dragged on, many impatient Khmers in the audience began to hiss and mutter angrily. Many of them were survivors or relatives of the dead. One day, I was invited to accompany a group of relatives from a small country town called Takeo, who had been invited by the U.N. outreach program to visit Tuol Sleng. The idea was to teach them about what might have happened to their loved ones and to show them the place where they might have died.

Many of these aging farmers had never been to the capital before, and Tuol Sleng to them was just a terrifying word. They arrived at the museum at 8 a.m., a large group anxious at first to have their pictures taken on the neat lawns under the shade of the frangipanis. But soon the mood changed. Tuol Sleng is filled with hundreds of mug shots taken by the captors as the prisoners were being processed prior to being "smashed." There are men, women, children--wildly beautiful young girls, old men, defiant teenagers with bloodied faces, disillusioned Party members who seem incredulous, small boys with cherubic eyes. Each one has a number slung around their neck (there is a famous Vann Nath panting of these ghastly photographic sessions). And there are pictures of the killed, too, each one with his or her throat cut, their chests cut open. There is a girl who threw herself out of a window to commit suicide. And there are the pictures by Vann Nath at every turn, exhibited here as if to corroborate the evidence. The farmers were as shocked by Vann Nath's paintings as by the portraits of the dead - perhaps more so.

Then it happened. I was standing next to a series of photos of prisoners, one of which is quite well known: It shows a young woman sitting next to her baby, her eyes turned helplessly toward the camera. Most of the portraits are marked "unknown" and this was no exception. The woman next to me was also studying this photo with excruciating intensity, and finally she let out an ear-splitting howl of grief. Tears streamed down her face. She recognized the girl with the baby. The farmers gathered round and the U.N. officials came up quickly with their notebooks; it sometimes happened t-hat a visitor recognized a dead relative, and it had happened now. The girl in the picture - the number - had a name after all, and she was the woman beside Me's sister-in-law. She had had no idea what had happened to her all those years before. The girl's name was Ouk Sareth. In the photo, she was 29. The sister-in-law's name was Nob Chim. I spent a little time with Nob Chim. She was 50 now and said she remembered "every moment" of the Khmer Rouge nightmare. Her hands shook with rage; she felt dizzy and had to sit down. She remembered she had built dams and farmed rice for Pol Pot. Ouk's husband had worked in the Ministry of Forestry and as an official had been targeted by the Khmer Rouge. He had been dragged behind a car to begin with - a little warning torture, if you like. Later, he disappeared altogether.

Ouk was sent to Tuol Sleng, it seemed, never to return. Her baby was killed as well. It is only by listening to people like Nob that you finally begin to fathom how casually the state can kill. Duch had signed Ouk's death warrant; she had shared this small prison with Vann Nath, whose Pol Pot busts stood piled up in a corner of the same room. How intimate and suffocating these interconnections were. Yet the anonymity of the regime's cruelty is strangely connected to the anonymity of its prime instigator, the man born as Saloth Sar.

It is that same anonymity that Vann Nath - consciously or otherwise - has captured in his pictures. As Nob wept, I couldn't help looking over at the impassive, smiling faces of Pol Pot that Nath had created to save his life. They explained nothing. Or did they? Vann Nath's pictures of Pol Pot are the most unnerving of all because he has captured something about the man without even wanting to. Pol Pot was always shadowy and inscrutable. He was always a smiling face in a humdrum photograph, an elusive eminence grise who ruled from behind the scenes. (During his reign, Western analysts had only been able to ascertain that Saloth Sar was Pol Pot by examining photographs of one of his state trips to China.) Inside Cambodia, many didn't know him even at the height of his power, even as they were about to die at his hands.

When Duch asked Vann Nath to put a name to a picture of Pol Pot, the confused artist said "Noun Chea." The director was highly amused, for Comrade Number One often "disappeared." He was always the puppet-master, the hidden engineer of human souls. And in Tuol Sleng one cannot help asking the question: Who was he? In a remarkable 1997 video interview with the American journalist Nate Thyer, the deposed dictator admitted, "I am not a very talkative person. … I am not a special person." He meant it. He mentioned with a shy smile that the French author Jacques Vergès had known him for 30 years "as a polite, discreet young man" but nothing more than that. Saloth was nothing if not stunningly ordinary. "Am I a violent person?" he liked to ask. How secretive the torturers always are, screened by legalisms and pseudonyms and euphemisms, their operations always carried out behind walls and closed doors - from where images can rarely travel. "If I had not painted water-boarding," Vann Nath told me one night, "people would probably not believe it had happened at all." He paused, "Let alone sawing people in half."

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The day of reckoning beckons

Survivor Vann Nath is seeking justice for himself and Cambodia
After a long dry spell, it rained for the opening day of yesterday's landmark Day 1 of the trial of Comrade Duch, some thirty years after the Khmer Rouge were kicked out of Phnom Penh. Duch was the chief of the Tuol Sleng prison where at least 12,380 people were tortured and murdered and he is the first of five former Khmer Rouge leaders to face the music, at long last. The trial is expected to take up to three months with 35 witnesses ready to give evidence on behalf of the prosecution. The photographs posted below are a handful of victims amongst the thousands that died under Comrade Duch's control who cannot give evidence at the trial. It is in their name and the name of millions of others who died or suffered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge that justice, however long it takes, must be served.

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Child survivors

The screen capture is poor but so is the quality of my Year Zero dvd, but these are the 4 male survivors with the children in early 1979. Vann Nath is the tallest of the men.
I am a little bit confused, though it doesn't take much to befuddle me sometimes! It's concerning the recent flurry of press talk about the child survivors of Tuol Sleng, aka S-21, once the Khmer Rouge took flight as the Vietnamese army rolled into Phnom Penh at the beginning of 1979. It's been suggested that the fact that children were amongst the survivors of the horrific Tuol Sleng prison was only really identified when the Vietnamese recently donated archival footage a couple of months ago, of the first few days after Tuol Sleng had been liberated. Bullshit. Even I knew there were child survivors of Tuol Sleng way back in 1979, as footage of them appeared on John Pilger's documentary Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia, when it was aired in October of that year. Four male survivors including Vann Nath and Ung Pech are shown with four tiny boys, as Pilger relates that just eight people survived from the thousands killed at the prison. Two of the boys, brothers Norng Chanphal and Chanly, have now been identified and have stepped forward to offer themselves as witnesses for the forthcoming trial of the S-21 chief Duch. In addition, Vietnamese photographer Ho Van Tay is helping in the hunt for the children, as he was one of the very first people to enter Tuol Sleng after the Khmer Rouge evaporated, and kept in touch with some of the children during the 1980s. It's his pictures that hang on the walls of the individual cells of Block A. So my question is, had no-one thought to seek out these children before now, and it sounds like the answer to that question is a resounding no.
Another poor quality screen capture but it shows the 4 men and the 4 young children, quoted as S-21 survivors by John Pilger in 1979

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Saturday, January 31, 2009

An Oscar for Nhem En?

Nhem En and some of the photos he took at Tuol Sleng in the late '70s
A 26-minute documentary about the man who took the photographs of the prisoners as they were marched blindfolded into Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh by their Khmer Rouge captors before being interrogated and then murdered, will be up for an Oscar later next month at the Academy Awards. Steven Okazaki's (pictured right) haunting story, The Conscience of Nhem En, looks behind the photos you see on the walls of S-21 at the man who was behind the camera and interviews three of the few survivors to have made it out of that hell hole. The absence of any feelings of remorse by Nhem En is chilling. ''I was only one screw of the machine. I did nothing wrong except taking photos at the superior's order,'' he claims. It will be the director's fourth Oscar nomination - he won best short in 1990 - for this short documentary, which he filmed in January of last year. It is his third film in a series of short personal documentaries, Three Journeys, which includes the Mushroom Club, a look at Hiroshima sixty years after the atomic bombing, and Hunting Tigers, a quirky look at Tokyo pop culture. Then Nhem En was a sixteen year old following orders, today he's deputy governor in Anlong Veng and has announced plans to build his own museum in the town, filled with his photographs and other KR memorablia. To find out more about the director, click here.
S-21 survivor Chum Mey is interviewed for the documentary

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Friday, December 26, 2008

History revealed

An entrance to Tuol Sleng in January 1979 (copyright Tuol Sleng Museum)
It's been mooted for many years that potentially important evidence concerning the Khmer Rouge was whisked off to Vietnam during the occupation of Cambodia in the 1980s and that some of that evidence could be crucial to the Khmer Rouge Tribunal currently being held in Phnom Penh. Whether that's conjecture or the truth, it's at least encouraging that the Vietnamese authorities have at long last consented to give up 20 documentary films from the Khmer Rouge period which they are handing to DC Cam this week. Youk Chhang, the Executive Director at DC Cam - who are the main repository for all items pertaining to the Khmer Rouge period - is off to Vietnam to collect the films which are believed to contain general views of the country in the late 70s as well as footage from the Tuol Sleng (S-21) prison at the time it was liberated by the invading Vietnamese forces - 7 January 1979. We have seen some glimpses of footage from around that time on other documentaries like John Pilger's Year Zero and the East German documentary Kampuchea: Death & Rebirth but if it's the original footage of the Vietnamese cameramen as they witnessed Tuol Sleng for the first time then it will be invaluable. Chhang revealed that the Vietnamese authorities have provided photographs and documents in the past but it sounds like they've been doing a spring clean of their archives and have found some more. Wouldn't it be great if they could do a full stock-take and dust off everything they have in their secretive vaults that would assist the Tribunal.
It was a Vietnamese colonel, Mam Lai, who turned the former S-21 prison into a musuem in 1979 and had been the person responsible for the stupa of skulls at Choeung Ek. Lai, the former curator of the American War Crimes museum in Saigon, added the most controversial exhibit at Tuol Sleng - a map of the country constructed out of human skulls - as the Vietnamese deliberately demonized the Khmer Rouge and personalized the "Pol Pot-Ieng Sary genocidal clique." It's clear that photographs and confessions, seen by reliable sources soon after the Tuol Sleng archive left by the retreating Khmer Rouge was discovered, subsequently disappeared but where those invaluable documents ended up isn't known.

On the subject of Tuol Sleng and DC Cam, a new book is just about to be published detailing the story of one of S-21's rare survivors, Bou Meng. In 2002, DC Cam's magazine Searching for the Truth reported that Bou Meng had disappeared and was presumed dead. However, he'd survived and like his fellow inmate Vann Nath, his skill as a portrait painter had saved him, though he lost his wife and two children in the Khmer Rouge slaughter. The 175-page book Bou Meng: A Survivor from Khmer Rouge Prison S-21: Justice for the Future, Not for the Victims, written by researcher Vannak Huy will soon be on sale from DC Cam.
Bou Meng returns to Tuol Sleng

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